Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Elephant Handler for the Day in Chiang Mai, Thailand


Business trips provide a unique opportunity to work really hard a long way from the creature comforts of home.  But sometimes... just sometimes you may find yourself somewhere exotic over a weekend. Can you say "free time"?  A couple of us were traveling together, and ready for some adventure.

We chose Patara Elephant Farm as it was the most highly regarded on Trip Advisor.  It also happened to be the most expensive, however once you hear about what they are doing, and the experience provided, you can understand why.  They are about protecting and preserving elephants by educating people like us. There are no circus tricks at this place, this is about the real care of elephants.Some of them are rescue elephants, some are born in the herd.They are the real deal.  Patara, owned by a Thai mountain tribe, has about 50 elephants, including 10 babies.

They picked us up at our hotel and we drove 45 minutes out to the mountains surrounding the city of Chiang Mai.  We were told to wear shorts, swimsuits and bring bug spray and water shoes.  Half way up the mountain, we stopped at a flat area with lots of grazing elephants and their babies hanging around.  Yep, just chilling there waiting for people like us, I guess.  I never saw any fences, gates or anything keeping the elephants there.  We approached a small group of a Mom, and two different age baby elephants with our driver, and a handler handed each of us a bunch of small Thai bananas.  Right away the elephants make a beeline straight for you!  Oh my gosh.... that is a weird feeling. I kind of wanted to run.

Later, we continued up the mountain to a very rural area to be briefed about the day and to meet up with the rest of our group.  In total, our group consisted of 9 people.  Nice size group for a personal adventure, for sure. We are assigned an elephant and a trainer to work with for the day.  They said they matched elephant personalities to each of us. I'm flattered, my elephant was kind, gentle and awesome.  Okay, she was large and ate a lot but that's no crime in my book!

We are there to work. To learn to take care of an elephant and make sure they are healthy.  Riding them to the waterfall is part of the bathing routine, and a happy side affect for us. I paid a lot of money to scrub a dirty elephant and inspect it's dung to ensure it was healthy and feeling fine.  But I'm getting ahead of myself, below are pictures of what we did and how we managed to have the best day ever.
 
Here's the moment where I get to meet my elephant, a 14 yr old female with one child.  Her name is Mamoon.  She was delightfully speckled with peachy polka dots.  She is gentle and calm as we get to know each other.  She's happy to take the bananas and sugar cane from me.  At first, I start by giving them to her trunk... a bit nervous about reaching towards her mouth.  She is huge, and gentle.  Her trunk is amazing... she can find things that she dropped without looking, just by reaching around with that finger-y thing at the end of her trunk.  The nostrils in her trunk are as big as half dollar coins. Later, I find that she likes me to fill them up with a hose... crazy stuff.

The whole time, Laman, the trainer, is by my side helping me and talking to MaMoon, probably assuring her that I am not as nervous as I am acting.

 
By this point, she has munched her way through the basket of bananas and sugar cane stalks, and now I've brought her a bundle of leafy stalks. She was able to carefully tear off the leaves from the stalk.  Apparently the stalks aren't as yummy.  The trainer says she does eat them, but only after she finishes the leaves.  I'm just starting to feel comfortable here.I tap her cheek under her eye (while making eye contact) and saying "liddy, liddy MaMoon".  That means "good girl"... I have no idea how to say "good boy", so don't ask.



A baby elephant wanders by.  Wait... what?  Whose baby is this?  I'm looking around to make sure I'm not pissing off some 5 ton Mama.  Nope, it's fine. 
The trainers put a mini banana on top of her head to encourage her to stay still and do something cute.  

As she reaches up with her trunk, she totally slimes my nose with dirt and gets some mud in my mouth.  I tell myself not to think about what is exactly IN that dirt and smile anyway.  I won't lie, it was easy to feel so joyful doing this. OMG... I am playing with a baby elephant!
Can you see the dirt?
I think you can.

Now I know why they put the banana on her head, when her trunk flips up, she looks totally cute and smiley too.

This "baby" is about 1 year old and weighs more than a double wide industrial fridge.  Watch your toes...


Just in case you are wondering, this fashionable shirt was provided for the day, and is a traditional tribal weave and denotes they are elephant handlers.  I had to give it back, darn it.  It was awesome hot pink and fit me just fine.

Later on, they gave us "elephant" pants to protect our legs from the coarse hair and skin while we rode.
Okay, enough fun and games... onto the five checks of a healthy elephant.  Let's see if I can remember them all....

1) Skin is dirty on all sides, that means the elephant felt good enough to lay down to sleep.  That's a good sign.  Apparently elephants sleep in about 1 hour increments getting up and moving their large selves about for 15 minutes before settling into another position.  "Check" my elephant is thoroughly covered in dirt, she obviously slept well.

2) Is the tail wagging and the ears flapping every minute or so?  Good!  That means she's healthy and she's feeling fine.  If her ears stand straight out... watch out, she's pissed (or not feeling well).  I think my ears might stand straight out occasionally.

3) Is she sweating?  Hard to say... until someone tells me the one place that elephants sweat.  Yep, only one.  It's on their feet, around their cuticles on their big ole' feet.  See how my elephants feet are muddy in the photo above? Yep, she's sweating.  I know, I got to poke around with my finger to make sure.  Weird to reach down to an elephant's foot and get so personal. I hate it when people poke my cuticles.

4) Is she pooping?  She should have 5-7 "nuggets" and they should be firm, but... ummm, juicy.  How do you know if they are juicy, well you pick one up and squeeze it.  Luckily I was able to bring this one to my trainer to squeeze, but I did carry a fresh one about 15 feet and give it a good whiff.  Grassy is good, real stinky is bad. I don't know about you, but any poop stinks to me.  


5)  Hmmmmm... in my excitment, I have no idea was the fifth one was.  I guess it's while they were telling me, I was waiting for the poop one that I just knew was coming. Was I worried about picking up elephant poop?  Yes, yes I was.

After the health check up, you need to brush off all that pesky dirt with your handy dandy leaf brush.  You have to smack her quite firmly to dislodge the mud/dirt that has settled in her wrinkles over night.  "Hey Girl... I know how you feel" about those pesky wrinkles.  

Patara Elephant Farm provided some videos in addition to pictures of the day, I got one of me cleaning this elephant, I'm frowning and concentrating on task as if its Spring Cleaning day at my house.  HA!  Like that ever happens!  After the brush off, its off to the baths.

If you want to lead your elephant, grab their ear and say "how".... I think.  Seems kind of rude to grab the edge of someone's ear and pull them around, but MaMoon goes willingly.  She knows the drills, I'm going to spray her with the hose and do a little simple scrubbing. She likes that.


Now that all the personal hygiene is done, it's time to ride the elephants to the waterfall for a "real" bath and some soaking time.  Soaking time?  Too bad I didn't get the subtlety of that statement until later.

So.... 
In order to get on your elephant and take a ride, you need to know a little bit about her background and personal preferences.  Sounds like about every woman I know. Hahaha.

Some elephants kneel down making a staircase of their bended leg, others hoist you up with their trunk, and others, well, they will lower their head and let you hurl your big self at their head. This is the most inelegant picture of me to ever hit the internet.  I laughed out loud when I saw this one.  The video is even funnier... but you are not gonna see that one.
 


One by one, each of the nine in our group got on their elephants.  
Cheers, jeers and scared little harumphs... elephants or humans, I have no idea. I'm pretty happy to be on top.
One by one, we plodded off to the trails above the clearing.  The trails were steep and narrow.  Each of us is sitting as far forward on the elephants head as possible...  it's the most comfortable spot of all... sort of.  Your knees are clenching the backside of the elephants ears as you pat her head and tell her she's an awesome gal (liddy, liddy).  Your heels are ready to smack her neck to get her to go faster.  Faster?  I don't think so.  Geez, I am over 12 ft off the ground and feeling kind of uncomfortable, I'm not getting anyone running here.  MaMoon plods up the hill, sure footed in narrow trails and thick sticky mud.  Sometimes I can't believe we're going to fit between the bamboo and the trees lining the path.  Luckily MaMoon stops and eats a couple of branches hanging in front of us.  She's calm and consistent.  Lots of other elephants are jockeying for position and trying to move up the line of elephants, but no one, just no one is getting in front of me and MaMoon.  I think we were soul mates.

I have no idea how long our trek was... I have the feeling it was about 1 1/2 hours, but really, I can't say for sure.  UP hill, DOWN hill, not even a trail that you'd want to take with a horse, or donkey, or motorbike!
My legs and butt were sore and shaky when we got there, but I couldn't stop pinching myself for the shear joy of traveling through the woods by elephant!!!


We had our lunch in a tree house (!!!) by the waterfall while their "real" handlers took care of the elephants.  Whew, we can hardly sit cross legged while we eat we are all so sore.  We ate with our hands (after washing... silly, we've been touching elephant dung- - -omg). 

Lunch was far more fantastic than you would imagine that elephant handlers would eat, must have been all the hard work we had been doing.

Coconut cakes, coconut rice prepared 2-3 ways, fried chicken, pork satay, mangosteen, ramboutan, langon fruit and bananas.  Wow.


We ended our day in the wide river, with a waterfall, as we finished scrubbing our elephants.  This was the most nerve wracking part of the whole day. You try standing in a pool wedged between two (even three!) massive elephants moving about in the water!  You had to move your elephant from the shallow pool (side washing station- yes, I have washed an elephant's ass) to the deep pool (top washing station). MaMoon wanted to mess about in the deep pool giving me fits as I tried to stay on her back as my handler shouted at me to "stay on".  Thanks, that's real helpful.
I thought I was going to get squashed about ten times.  Don't worry, I did a thorough job, my elephant was CLEAN and happy when I was done washing. Okay, so I was a disgusting mess when I finished.  That's OK, it was quite a day.

Here we are after our elephants were all clean, they line them up and we rinse them once last time.  Nicely, the elephants rinse us after that. We should have seen that coming. 


 Group shot, pose while the elephants spray you with water. Why not? 





I was sore for three days after this... what a great feeling... who else can say they got sore from riding elephants all day?  I'd like to tell you to prepare for this by working out more, but I have no idea what exercise prepares you for this! 

This adventure alone is enough to travel to Chiang Mai Thailand for.  It's a trip I totally recommend, don't wait for a business trip, just GO... NOW.  I am SO going back here to do this again.

Where in the world have you been? 
Here's a couple other travel posts I've written over the past couple years.
Thai Cooking School Adventure
Meat Anyone?  A trip to Hamburg
Japan- Best Boxed Lunch EVER
Japan Adventure- Part 1
Japan Adventure- The Food- Part 2
Iceland- The Weekend Adventure
In n' Out Burger "Animal Style"
Singapore Flying Crab 
Singapore Fruit
Turkish Spice Market Delight

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